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2010 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

Fun Forever?Toys, Games, and Play in Louisa May

Alcotts Little Women

Anne K. Phillips

Nineteenth-century literature offers insights into the history and sociology of play in American life. Louisa May Alcotts novel Little Women contains especially rich period depictions of childhood games and amusements and provides some of the earliest scenes of American girls at play. The author discusses the various depic-tions of play in the novel, places these in the context of Alcotts life and work, and contrasts them to other works of the period. She contends that Little Women, detailing and celebrating play from start to finish, demonstrates how play was both valued for itself and served a socializing function. She also presents scenes from Little Women to illustrate specific aspects of nineteenth-century American playits use of furniture and the place of dolls, for example. In short, the author treats Little Women as a privileged example to discuss play more generally, and she uses the study of play to look more carefully at the novel itself.

In much of the existing analysis of nineteenth-century American childrens toys and play practices, scholars have consulted autobiographies and memoirs for confirmation of their theories.1 Others have surveyed visual representations of American children of the era to acquire evidence about American childhood.2 While scholars acknowledge the existence of literature written about and for children in nineteenth-century America, few of them have assessed literary texts in connection with ongoing theories about childhood and play. Prior to 1860, American childrens literature conveyed little information about toys, games, and play. As Anne Scott MacLeod notes, Frivolity, imaginative play, and uninstructive entertainment were dismissed, not so much because they were sinful as because they wasted the brief, precious time in which a child must learn so much that was so important.3 On the whole, nineteenth-century literature for children has received scant attention in the context of historical and sociological studies of American children and their play activities. Neither

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have literary scholars attended in any detail to the ways in which nineteenth-century American childrens literature depicts and editorializes about child play and amusement. The subject is a rich one, deserving of attention beyond the scope of this article. Of the literature published for child readers in the nineteenth century, Louisa May Alcotts Little Women (1868/1869) offers a particularly original and fascinat-ing depiction of play in American life. Although there are vestiges of play and amusement in novels for girls prior to the appearance of Little Women, Alcotts novel is really the first to show play that is celebrated and valued for its own sake. Little Women perfectly embodies what Gary Cross describes as a post-1850 American emphasis on instinct and spontaneity in play.4 It accurately reflects multiple aspects of nineteenth-century American child culture, and it insists that play is not only desirable but a necessary component of a well-rounded life. Prior to the publication of Little Women in 1868, American girls were rarely depicted in literature as being involved with toys, games, and play. It is true that on the whole, few literary texts embodied specific components of play culture. However, even in literary texts published prior to 1860, there are instances in which games and play memorably occur. In novelist Susan Warners The Wide, Wide World (1850), for example, Ellen Montgomery experiences little that might be seen as amusement or frivolity. Her dying mother has sent her to live with an unsympathetic relative (significantly named Miss Fortune Emerson), and the primary trajectory of Ellens story involves her development into a faithful and properly submissive Christian. However, chapter 25 depicts a series of games in which children and adults from the community participate: Now the fun began in good earnest, and few minutes had passed before Ellen was laughing with all her heart, as if she never had had any thing to cry for in her life. After puss, puss in the corner came blind-mans buff; and this was played with great spirit.5 The party culminates with a session of Fox and Geesehere, a varia-tion on tag, rather than the board game.6 Warner devotes surprising detail to this community celebration, lavishing attention on Mr. Dennisons strategies for capturing Miss Emersons geese, and uncharacteristically emphasizing the way Ellen enjoys the party. No clear moral purpose is served by the episode; it is among the earliest in American childrens literature to depict fun for its own sake. Published some years before the more formally recognized local-color movement in American literature, Warners best-selling novel anticipates its celebration of regional activities and characteristics and quite probably draws from personal play and party experiences of her own youth.7

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Another literary work published the very same year as Little Women and written for a comparable audience also includes more references to toys and play than might be expected. Elsie Dinsmore, the first in a series of twenty-eight volumes about the title character written by Martha Finley,8 depicts a lachry-mose protagonist who is in this sense very much an heir of Ellen Montgomery. Given Elsies single-minded focus on her Christianity, it may seem surprising that there are many references to toys, games, and play in the novel. In the novels opening chapter, play and fun are forbidden entities when Elsies vindic-tive teacher denies her an opportunity to go to the fair with the other members of her family. Although Elsie, a wealthy child, apparently has playthings, Finley commonly refers to them to show the way Elsies family subjugates her: She was made to give up her toys and pleasures to Enna, and even sometimes to Arthur and Walter.9

Toys also function in Elsie Dinsmore as a way for the title character to practice sacrifice and submission, as when Elsie buys the toy boat only so she can make a present of it for the undeserving and sadistic Arthur.10 Elsewhere in the novel, other children play jacks, although Elsie is explicitly forbidden by her father to play them (in keeping with his attempt to dominate her entirely);11 at a social gathering, there are blocks, dolls, and other toys and games.12 After having begun to win her fathers heart, Elsie receives from him a number of costly toys.13 Finley, significantly, provides no specific detail about them. MacLeod notes of pre-1860 American childrens literature, There were few homely details of food or dress or common activity to anchor the fiction to a particular time and place; most stories were played out against backgrounds almost abstract in their generality.14

However, other children in Finleys novel receive toys that are more ex-plicitly described. For example, Mary Leslie and little Flora Arnott were made perfectly happy with wax dolls that could open and shut their eyes; Caroline Howard received a gold chain from her mamma, and a pretty pin from Elsie; Lucy, a set of coral ornaments.15 It is Elsie for whom there is a overall lack of detail and a pattern of subjugation, particularly in reference to her toys and play; candy also figures into this, as her father denies her the sweets that other children all around her gleefully consume. The other children whose toys and play are described in greater detail often are seen as rather crude (and cruel) in their attitudes and behaviors, while Elsies only very general association with toys and other possessions suggests her alliance with more spiritual matters. In a scene near the conclusion of Finleys novel, the larger community gathers to

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celebrate and play together, adults as well as children. Unlike Warner, Finley provides few details about the games and sports they play. Elsie Dinsmore suggests that Christianity should be a childs primary con-sideration, but Little Women depicts a very different attitude toward child-hood, one which features an astonishing range of toys, games, and play. In part, Alcotts refreshing attitude toward play and activity stems from her own childhood experiences, which she identified as the source for her fiction.16 In part, however, Little Women must also be seen in context. In September 1867, Thomas Niles, of the Boston publishing firm Roberts Brothers, asked Louisa to write a novel for girls.17 Niless request was based in part on the success of series books for boys by authors such as William T. Adams, writing as Oliver Optic, and Horatio Alger. Although initially she felt reluctant, Alcott noted in her journal, lively, simple books are much needed for girls, and perhaps I can supply the need.18

In her journals and letters, Alcott demonstrates an enthusiasm for play and a familiarity with particular kinds of entertainment similar to those of other well-known nineteenth-century authors such as Edward Everett Hale and William Dean Howells.19 These authors enjoyed play, and they all three played in similar ways, despite economic, geographical, and gender differences. Each described playing circus or menagerie games; each contributed to theatricals and family newspapers.20 Alcotts journal entries from as early as 1843, when she would have been ten or eleven years old, suggest that, for her, amusement stemmed from making doll clothes or playing outside, among other activities. In one oft-cited entry, Alcott notes, [I] had a lovely time in the woods with Anna and Lizzie. We were fairies, and made gowns and paper wings. I flied the highest of all.21

Modern readers of her journals find even more significant that, despite the familys deprivations (even during their failed commune experience at Fruit-lands, which should be seen as the low point of their lives), Alcott regularly notes not only that she has assisted with the work and taken some exercise but also that she makes time for play, and further, that other members of her family regularly participate as well. We played in the snow before school, she writes. And we played till supper time[;] in the evening we played cards.22 Other nineteenth-century girls also devoted considerable detail in their diaries and letters (and later, memoirs) to their play.23 However, for the Alcotts, play seems to have been an essential component of daily life.

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Scholars have paid much attention to the way that Bronson Alcotts theo-ries affected his family.24 However, in the context of the role of play in the Alcottss lives, it is clear that Abigail Abba Alcott, Louisas mother, was the chief proponent of play.25 In reminiscences about the Alcott family and their life in Concord, Anne Brown Adams, a daughter of John Brown who boarded at the Alcotts while she attended Frank Sanborns academy in the early 1860s, recalled that while Bronson remained upstairs in his room, Mrs. Alcott played nine mens Morris, alternate games with my sister and myself, then a game of cribbage with my sister, next a game of chess with me, and then Miss Louisa would come down and we all would play Casino . . . with cards, until tired of it, ending by playing Old Maid, chatting pleasantly and going to bed.26

Adams also detailed Abbas philosophy about play: Mrs. Alcott was very fond of gathering the young people about her in the evening and playing games with them. She had a theory, and she practiced it too, that it is the duty of every mother in the land to invite a few young men to spend their evenings at their home, and so fill them with quiet rational amusements that it would draw the young men away from bad places.27

Abbas daughters clearly took to heart the principle that a well-rounded life included regular play. In later entries in Louisas journals, she details such experiences as her sister Mays 1863 trip to Clarks Island: a riotously good time boating, singing, dancing, croqueting & captivating.28 She also wrote of her own experiences, including one in Gloucester in 1864: Had a jolly time boating, driving, charading, dancing & picnicking.29 Throughout her life, as her health and work obligations permitted, Louisa made play a priority, in part because of the habits her mother instituted throughout her childhood. Little Women details and celebrates play from beginning to end. The first chapter begins with the girls rehearsal for their Christmas theatrical, and the final chapter depicts the entire March family celebrating Marmees birthday and enjoying the apple harvest festivities at Plumfield. In between, the March sisters act, dance, and play Buzz.30 They throw snowballs, skate, go sleighing, play chess, enact characters from Dickenss The Pickwick Papers, write newspapers, go on picnics, play croquet, go rowing, stage a circus, and play Fox and Geese.31 They also fence, concoct mudpies, dress up, slide down the banister, build a snow maiden, and play with kittensand thats only in the first volume. The March sisters use found objects for play, as in their enactment of scenes from John Bunyans The Pilgrims Progress. Marmee notes, Nothing delighted you

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more than to have me tie my piece-bags on your backs for burdens, give you hats and sticks, and rolls of paper, and let you travel through the house from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, up, up, to the house-top, where you had all the lovely things you could collect to make a Celestial City.32

In his Children at Play, Howard P. Chudacoff has noted, The most popular playthings have been those informal objects that children fashion or discover themselves.33 The March sisters are remarkable in this respect. Preparing for their performance of The Witchs Curse, a play they have written and for which they each act multiple parts, the girls create whatever they need: Being . . . not rich enough to afford any great outlay for private performances, the girls put their wits to work, and, necessity being the mother of invention, made whatever they needed. Very clever were some of their productions; paste-board guitars, antique lamps made of old-fashioned butter-boats, covered with silver paper, gorgeous robes of old cotton, glittering with tin spangles from a pickle factory, and armor covered with the same useful diamond-shaped bits, left in sheets when t...


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